- CHAPTER XIX THE REDLANDS GHOST
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THE REDLANDS GHOST
MISS CASSANDRA is very ill at ease on the day of Hope's visit to the sheriff at Lee. The girl's silence and moodiness are preying upon her usually even spirits. When she finds that Hope has been all day shut in her own room, she calls for her wheel, dons her short skirts and Alpine hat, and sets off. "Anything is better than moping," thinks this wise little woman, as she spins out upon the highway, inwardly delighted over her steady seat and balance.
She has not meant to go to Redlands, but she finds herself first thinking of Miss Hilton, and then wheeling in that direction; and presently she comes upon Lorna and Loyd; not speeding over the ground, as they used to do daily, but sauntering across the sward lying between the highway and Redlands.
They are at a little distance away, but she calls her greeting to Lorna across the "worm" fence, and through obscuring shrubbery, and the girl at once made her way to the intervening fence.| | 214
"Are you going to see mamma, Miss Cassandra?" asks Lorna, after a few words have been exchanged. "I hope so. Do go and give her the benefit of your good sense and practical ideas! We have had a real ghost at last, it seems, and the maids are in a panic, and want to leave us in a body."
It is not the best of places for a conference; there is a ditch between the road and the snake fence, and Miss Cassandra makes her reply short and in the affirmative, and passes on, "To help lay the ghost," she tells Lorna, and as she goes she adds in her whimsical way, for she is given to frequent and lengthy self-communings--
"A ghost, indeed. I wonder that the child can care to talk, even in jest, of such unreal horrors as ghosts, when there are things so much worse than ghosts at their very door "
But, to her surprise, she finds Mrs. Hilton, too, absorbed in the subject of the ghost.
She is upon the narrow stretch of lawn lying between the house and the sandy lake shore, and so close to the smaller entrance that the two meet, almost at the gate, and she takes the arm of her guest, and speaking somewhat more hurriedly than her wont, says, "Come with me to the boathouse, Miss Chetwynde, it's charmingly cool there, and no one can approach us unseen--unless, it may be, a mermaid. You are the person of all persons I could have wished to see this day;" and then when Miss Cassandra has placed her wheel in security, and returned to her side, she repeats Lorna's information. "Do you know, my friend, that in addition to our other worries we are a bonâ-fide haunted family."| | 215
And then, having gained the shelter and security of the boat-house, the story is told clearly, with no waste of words.
And this is the story.
A few evenings ago the cook came in from a stroll upon the shore with a tale about a strange apparition, seen by her on her way home--just beyond the gates, in fact. Of course she told the others, and of course was believed by the timid housemaids, and laughed at by the gardener and coachman; but the next night one of the men saw the apparition. In fact, it was seen three times before the story of its appearance came to Mrs. Hilton's knowledge. Then the cook and Lorna's maid came to her, much terrified by this time.
The story told by the servants was the same in each case, except as to the precise spot upon which it had appeared.
Extending from the little fishing village--as the group of fishers' families with their tiny cottages, built merely for summer use, had been named--and running around the foot of the lake, and past the Hiltons' house, is a path lying at the point where the woody slope, that came down to the lake shore, meets the sands of the beach. It is narrow, but many feet have worn it smooth, and many interests have united to keep it free of obstructions; for the fishermen and their children traverse it by day, finding comfort and shelter in the trees that shade it on one side, and their elder sons and daughters make of it a lovers' walk at night; and day and night it is open to the lake on the one side, and shadowed by the last outposts of the climbing wood, | | 216 which goes up and up from this point, growing denser as it mounts higher, and interlaced here and there with tracks; tiny footpaths made, for the most part, by the wood gatherers from the fishing villages around the lake.
It is upon this path, at different points, that the ghost has been seen--once close by the house, once beyond it, westward in the direction of the boat-house, and once farther eastward. But in appearance it was always the same.
"Of course," Mrs Hilton says at this stage in the narrative, "you are looking for an absurd denouement, but listen. I won't trouble you to listen long, ghost stories should be brief. Of course I smiled inwardly at these tales, and, beginning by thinking it a trick of imagination, ended by believing it the trick of a trickster."
"Of course, and you caught the perpetrators, no doubt?"
"You shall hear. Sims, the gardener, is an old man, and full of fancies and superstitions; but Higgins, the groom, is young, strong, and, I thought, not likely to be deceived. So I arranged with Higgins to stand guard last night, my idea being that, for some reason, some one was spying about the house."
"I see!" Aunt Cass nods sagely.
"I put Higgins at his post on the south-east side of the house, in a safe and well-hidden nook, and then, without informing any one, I established myself upon the other side."
"Certainly, I. I believe it's just what you would | | 217 have done." In spite of her uneasiness Mrs. Hilton smiles.
"Oh, of course, I--but--well--go on, my dear."
"Loyd and Lorna have been so much together of late, and so secluded from the ordinary interests of the household, that by a little sternness I kept the servants from babbling in their hearing; and they saw and heard nothing--until this morning. But the maids watched in the grounds, in spite of my commands to stay indoors--very carefully though, and close to the house. I need not prolong the story, but will tell you what I saw after sitting long upon a camp stool, close in the shadow of a clump of bushes, with absolute darkness and shadow behind me, and the lake, the shore, and the open path before. You know what the night was?"
"Yes, neither too dark nor too light, just favourable for ghosts."
"Of course you'll scoff. I expect it."
"No, I wont! Go on--do!"
"Well, it was nearing midnight I knew, for I had heard the screech of the 'up train' for Lee, and while my gaze was still upon the path, or rather the water beyond it, I had almost forgotten the ghost, when suddenly a shadow came between myself and the lake, not ten feet away. It was the ghost."
"Of course! Did it groan?"
"It did not. It seemed to hover just above the earth, not touching it, and it looked like a sheeted figure, long, and absolutely without movement of form or drapery, except the slow, gliding progress with which it seemed to float past me, and toward | | 218 the wood. It was just such a thing as the others had described, but I was as amazed as if I had never heard of it. It was dim of outline, yet not to be mistaken; and it made a spot of greyish light in the deeper gloom all about it. It moved seemingly without effort, and without touching the path, and it disappeared among the. shadows."
"And--what was it?"
"If I only knew! I had bade Higgins make no sound, but if he saw the figure to pursue it and report to me. He saw it, but he could only say of it that it 'vanished' before his eyes. Even the girls saw it."
"Do you think it is a trick? Of course it can't be an optical illusion!"
"You put your question strangely. Can it be that you believe in--ghosts?"
Aunt Cassandra lifts her head, and her eyes are serious and sincere.
"The fool says in his heart there is no ghost. Far be it from me to set a limit to the Creator's power and will. What do we know of the invisible world about us! Yes, or of the visible? Was this a ghost? That is what we have to ask!" But Mrs. Hilton shakes her head.
"You have heard my story," she says, "now advise me."
"Am I right in thinking that you do not care to have this talked about?"
"Yes. Oh, yes. I think I can depend upon the servants. They are attached to us--devoted."
"I believe you." Miss Cassandra muses for a space, with her chin in her hand. "Do you really want my opinion?"| | 219
"Really! What is your thought?"
"This. If some one is seeking to spy for--any purpose, the person should be found out. If it were my case I would make some demonstration, as of sending a man about the grounds with a light, say for a couple of nights, as if the object had been seen and there was just a slight alarm. If it's a spy he will stop for a short time. Then I would set a faithful watch, and when the intruder grows a little bold, I would try and trap him. I would like, above all things, to see this gliding ghost of yours."
"Come and stay .one night with us, then? I intend to follow your advice."
Of course there is much more talk about the ghost, in which the little spinster has taken a strong interest, and concerning which she propounds many theories. But none seem to fit all the phases of the case, and when she takes her leave her first suggestion stands still as the approved and wisest source.
The country roads to the west of the lake are many, and in excellent condition, and, owing to the conformation of the land about the lake's foot, and its sloping and wooded boundaries, they interlace at curious angles, and it is seldom that one need go from any given point and return to it by the same road.
Miss Chetwynde is in no mind to return home--first, because she has been given something now upon which to exercise a brain rather fond of interesting problems; and next, because she is beginning to find the bicycle, her bicycle at least, a very fascinating companion. Not even the | | 220 servants knew how many of the early morning hours she has spent upon the terrace, mounting balancing, and tumbling for the most part at first, and gradually mastering poise and pedal, and after that direction and speed.
It is yet early, and she rides on, aimlessly at first, and then she starts forward suddenly. The next curve will lead her to the cemetery, and she will go there. It is strange how loath Hope seems to visit her brother's grave, at least in her aunt's company. The man from the greenhouse at Lee was to have planted tall roses and white carnations, myrtle and hardy allyrum there.
"It is not far," says Miss Cassandra, accelerating her speed.
The carriage gate is closed, but the lesser entrance admits all comers through or between its zigzag-spaced parts, and she guides her wheel toward that.
There has been no rain for some days, and the soft sand takes her foot silently, warmed by the heat of the sun, for here the trees are far apart. It takes a fine impression of her bicycle tyre, too. It looks snakelike as it drags its single length along unevenly. As she twists her wheel in and out between the parts, she loses sight of the main pathway for a moment; and then, glancing down its length again, she sees a woman's figure moving on slowly, just a little ahead; she seems to have just entered, for she only now reached the first of the narrow out-branching pathways.
The figure is that of a small woman, scarcely larger than our spinster, and it is clad in well-fitting but simple black. Thus much Aunt Cass; | | 221 can see as she nears the stranger, who saunters slowly, and at last stops at the grave of a child, standing alone beside the path.
At the sound of feet upon the gravel behind her the lady turns quickly, and with a look of surprise.
"I ask your pardon," she says hastily, and she moves back a pace. "I fancied when I came in just now that I was quite alone--here."
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